The BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action is an NSF Science and Technology Center founded with the mission of illuminating and harnessing the power of evolution in action to advance science and technology and benefit society. Research at BEACON focuses on biological evolution, digital evolution, and evolutionary applications in engineering, uniting biologists who study natural evolutionary processes with computer scientists and engineers who are harnessing these processes to solve real-world problems.
Developers of evolutionary algorithms have long borrowed high-level concepts from biology to improve problem-solving methods, but have not always captured the nuances of evolutionary theory. Likewise, studying the evolution of artificial systems can provide biologists with insight into the dynamics of the evolutionary process and the critical factors underlying emergent properties and behaviors. BEACON will promote the transfer of discoveries from biology into computer science and engineering design, while using novel computational methods and systems to address complex biological questions that are difficult or impossible to study with natural organisms.
As Dobzhansky famously noted, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” BEACON’s vision focuses that light, revealing fundamental biological concepts and illuminating the path toward computational applications. The key insight underlying the Center is that transformative discoveries in both computing and biology are possible through studying evolution as it happens, in both natural and digital domains. The philosopher Dennett (2002) has pointed out the algorithmic nature of evolution as a process that will occur in any system with “replication, variation (mutation) and differential fitness (competition)”. BEACON aims to understand evolution in this universal framework.
BEACON is headquartered at Michigan State University, with partner institutions at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Washington, North Carolina A&T State University, and the University of Idaho.
To facilitate the exchange of ideas, BEACON has four research thrust groups, each addressing a broad theme that cuts across computational and biological thinking, but at different hierarchical levels. The Evolution of Genomes, Genetic Architectures, and Evolvability group focuses on mechanisms of genetic change, organization, encoding of information, and developmental processes. The Evolution of Behavior and Intelligence group emphasizes evolution of phenotypic traits of self-directed organisms including complex behaviors and early forms of intelligence. The Evolution of Communities and Collective Dynamics group investigates evolution in large groups of organisms, focusing on issues related to the evolution of group structure and societal development, as well as emergent properties of ecological communities. The Evolutionary Applications group harnesses the principles of evolution and applies them to technological challenges and opportunities such as evolutionary computation, evolutionary robotics, and synthetic biology. To promote the two-way flow of discoveries and concepts, each thrust group includes team leaders and researchers from both biological and computational fields. In one direction, this flow facilitates critical advances in evolutionary methods and algorithms. In the other direction, the speed, precision, and repeatability of computational evolution enables biologists to test complex hypotheses that are experimentally impractical in natural systems. Thus, the twin goals of BEACON are (1) to develop and apply evolutionary principles of adaptation and resiliency in computer science and engineering design, and (2) to use computational systems in tandem with biological experiments to test complex biological hypotheses. BEACON research projects are highly multidisciplinary and multi-institutional. BEACON will actively promote technology transfer of its findings to industry: the Center’s Industrial Affiliates include several companies, large and small, with which Center researchers have established or emerging collaborations.
Education and human resource development
Education and human resource development activities of BEACON include faculty and postdoc mentoring, novel curricula both at graduate and undergraduate levels, training programs for high-school and middle-school teachers, and an array of outreach programs to engage K-12 students and the general public. For example, graduate students at all partners work to become proficient in both computational sciences and evolutionary biology; each will start with a bridge course covering the fundamentals in the complementary discipline, followed by a project course engaging teams of students and faculty from both disciplines in a hands-on project with evolution in action. A typical example of BEACON outreach is a training program for high-school science instructors in applying novel software-based tools to teach basic evolutionary principles. The software provides self-replicating programs that evolve the capacity to solve problems and puzzles. Students can explore and test evolutionary concepts in a game-like environment, giving them hands-on experience with principles that otherwise seem abstract. Versions of this software are available in museums and on the web.
BEACON investigators are unusually diverse. Student diversity will be assured by building on the highly successful Sloan Graduate Program at MSU, which has recruited many African American and Hispanic graduate students from HBCUs, including North Carolina A&T. Partnership with NC A&T will provide their graduates opportunities at Center partners that offer Ph.D degrees not available at NC A&T. Undergraduate research assistants, especially from underrepresented minorities, will be recruited under MSU’s Professorial Assistant Program and REU supplements. BEACON will also draw upon and contribute to NSF’s National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, NESCent, an organization with a related, but distinct, mission. The educational and computational tools developed by BEACON will be shared with NESCent, and NESCent programs will be tapped for use in BEACON’s graduate and teacher training.
Intellectual Merit of Center
BEACON will unite computer scientists and evolutionary biologists more intimately than ever before. This close collaboration and combined studies of evolving biological and artificial systems will promote a deeper understanding of evolutionary dynamics. The basic principles revealed by these investigations can be used to develop more robust computing systems, gain insights into biological organisms and their interactions, and help to solve important industrial design problems. The promise of such gains is already showing in BEACON’s collaborations, and the Center will dramatically expand the intellectual diversity of those involved in this intensive integration of computer science, evolutionary biology, and engineering design.
Broader Impacts of Center
BEACON includes a strong cross-disciplinary training program to broadly educate its graduate, post-doctoral, and faculty researchers on concepts in evolutionary biology and computation, and teach them how to communicate across fields. It aggressively recruits women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities at all levels. All center sites involve undergraduates in research. BEACON prepares free, open-source computer-based tools to give high school students hands-on experience with evolution and disseminate those tools through summer programs for high school teachers. A novel after-school and summer camp program for K-12 students integrates evolutionary biology, software engineering, and robotics. Outreach activities engage students, inspiring them to study the evolutionary process, its ubiquitous role in nature, and its applications to science and engineering. The Center works with the MSU Museum and other facilities to develop exhibits that can be used worldwide. BEACON faculty continue to work with NSF’s NESCent. BEACON’s impact on the speed and quality of innovation in industrial product and process design could be dramatic. The capacity of evolution to produce highly responsive behaviors is especially important as new threats emerge that pose significant hazards to the nation’s cyber-physical infrastructure, the health of its citizens, and the delicate balance of the global ecosystem. Promoting an understanding of the evolutionary process has important consequences for a public that remains skeptical of evolution, let alone aware of how it affects their lives.
Rationale for Center Concept
Our overarching goal for BEACON is to unite biologists with computational researchers and other scientists and engineers in an effort to expand our understanding of fundamental evolutionary dynamics through a combination of theory and experiments on actively evolving systems. Most researchers in evolutionary computation make use of high-level concepts from biology, but tend to ignore the subtleties. At the same time, biologists often discount the value of any artificial system for elucidating processes in the natural world. The Center helps researchers overcome these biases and realize the sophistication and universality of evolution. Studies using a wide range of natural organisms (from simple bacteria like E. coli, to complex vertebrates, such as spotted hyena) are paired with novel evolutionary computation systems that allow both experimental and applied research. As a bridge between these domains we also use digital organisms, which are self-replicating computer programs that undergo open-ended evolution. Such digital evolution systems are powerful research tools that make transparent the evolutionary process while giving researchers unparalleled control over their experiments.
Our range of study systems and our focus on evolution in action allows us to explore fundamental issues in evolutionary theory. While science has come a long way in understanding evolutionary patterns and the history of life on earth, many important questions remain about the causal processes: How do complexity, diversity, and robustness arise in evolving systems? What conditions lead to the evolution of intelligent behaviors? How do ecological communities form? Why do multicellularity and other forms of cooperation evolve? How much do these processes vary between species or across biological, computational and robotic systems? Answering these and related questions will allow our understanding of evolution to better inform other areas of biological investigation and augment the practical utility of evolutionary design in engineering and industry. Our guiding precept of this Center is that we must perform controlled experiments on evolution as it happens to fully understand, predict, and control evolutionary dynamics. These concepts demand exploration by interdisciplinary teams, joining biologists with computer scientists and engineers to solve increasingly difficult real-world design and optimization problems.
We will share the deep understanding afforded by this transformative research with the broader public, encouraging acceptance and intuition about evolution through first-hand experience. Although evolutionary science is the fundamental explanatory principle in biology, it continues to be widely misunderstood and even rejected by a majority of Americans. Being able to observe and perform experiments on actively evolving systems will help people appreciate not only the creative power of evolutionary mechanisms, but also the nature of scientific reasoning itself. Digital evolution, in particular, provides a revolutionary educational tool that can bring evolution to the classroom, to a museum, and even to a web browser. Our past successes, such as the Avida-ED digital evolution educational software, have demonstrated the promise of this innovative approach, but the sustained infrastructure of an NSF Center will allow us to bring it to fruition. We will combine these techniques with new evolution-in-action experiments on natural organisms to advance internal training of students and post-docs as well as external education and outreach efforts (including development of curricula and educational tools). Faculty and students at all partner institutions will participate fully in these educational activities, as developers and users. As part of the Center’s large-scale effort, North Carolina A&T will incorporate these techniques to teach about evolution in their core curriculum, a significant step for any school, and especially for an HBCU where religious pressures often cause such topics to be avoided.
BEACON will have a powerful legacy: we will reframe public perceptions of evolution and increase understanding of scientific methods. At the same time, we will produce a conceptual framework to firmly establish evolutionary biology as an experimental science and cement its links to computing in a cross-fertilization that enhances both fields. Once we break these disciplinary barriers, the powerful collaborations that we produce will long outlast the Center, leading to generations of thriving researchers proficient at the intersection of biological and computational evolution. This intellectual legacy will continue to be reinforced and promoted by an open professional research and education conference that we will grow out of the Center’s annual all-hands meeting.